PCs and Notebooks for Under $1,000

By Eric Grevstad | Posted August 19, 2003

"An IBM ThinkPad Under $1,000? Who Could Resist?" asked a Big Blue press release last week. Well, we could: The new ThinkPad R40 is indeed $999 with a 15.0-inch or $949 with a 14.1-inch display and 1.8GHz mobile Celeron central processing unit (CPU), but its 128MB of memory, 20GB hard disk, and compact disc-read-only memory (CD-ROM) instead of digital video disc (DVD-ROM) or CD burner strike us as skimpy.

But then, we're always been ruthless when it comes to seeking the best desktops and laptops $1,000 can buy — and after the doldrums of spring and summer, our quarterly tour of vendors' Web sites is shifting into high gear, with the third quarter's back-to-school and fourth quarter's holiday buying seasons always good for a slew of new systems and upgraded configurations.

The rules haven't changed: We stage an imaginary shopping spree for notebooks and desktops — the latter both with and without monitors (15-inch liquid crystal display (LCD or 17-inch CRT minimum) — scoffing at systems without at least 256MB of memory and both modem and Ethernet ports. As usual, prices were checked online this morning; blame us for any mistakes in transcription, but blame the vendors for changing prices, rebates, or bonus deals on a moment's notice.

Mail-in Mania
Another rule of our bargain hunt is that desktops with lowball integrated graphics are OK, but they have to have accelerated graphics port (AGP) slots in case the owner wants to add a 3D-game-worthy graphics card later. Last time out, we blackballed eMachines for selling only AGP-free systems, but now the value brand has redeemed itself: the new T2625 not only has an AGP slot but one of the new, format-spanning DVD+/-RW drives, able to handle DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R, DVD+RW, CD-R, and CD-RW.

You'll also find an AMD Athlon 2600+ processor, 512MB of DDR266 memory, and a hefty 120GB hard disk. Our only gripe is that the eMachines and its 15-inch LCD monitor take $1,150 to buy; you must process and wait for mail-in rebates to bring the duo to our $1,000 level.

Another retailer fond of mail-in rebates is HP, whose M200Y is the first TV-tuner- and remote-control-equipped, personal-video-recorder Windows XP Media Center PC we've seen for $1,000. But the 2.4GHz Pentium 4 system has a couple of catches — it can save your favorite shows only as Video CDs using its DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, since a DVD+RW drive is a $75 upgrade, and you'll watch them in silence, since it has no speakers.

Skipping the personal video recorder, HP's Pavilion A250N desktop offers DVD+RW and CD-ROM drives as well as Intel's 2.6GHz Pentium 4 with 800MHz front-side bus and Hyper-Threading, 512MB of DDR333, a 120GB hard disk, and Nvidia GeForce4 MX 440 AGP 8X graphics card; it's $1,000 with no monitor.

If you'd like a Pavilion with 17-inch flat-screen cathode-ray tube (CRT) for the same price (actually for $990 after rebate), the model A230N relies on AMD's 333MHz-bus Athlon XP 2800+ and integrated GeForce4 MX graphics (plus AGP slot), but it too has DVD+RW, 512MB of DDR333, and a 120GB hard disk. So does the Compaq Presario S4500NX, which has similar specs with an Athlon XP 3000+ processor; we found CompUSA selling it without monitor for $950 after a $50 mail-in rebate.

The last DVD-burning desktop we found for our budget was Sony's Vaio RS320, priced at $950 after a $100 you-know-what. It combines Intel's 2.6GHz Hyper-Threading Pentium 4 (800MHz bus) with 512MB of DDR333 memory, a 120GB hard disk, and both DVD-RW and CD-ROM drives, along with an AGP slot if you can't stand Intel's 865G chipset graphics.

If you crave a Vaio with 15-inch LCD monitor for $998, there's Wal-Mart's model RS312V with DVD-ROM and CD-RW drives, but it has a humble Pentium 4/2.4 (533MHz bus) processor, 256MB of memory, and no AGP slot.

Too Rich or Too Thin
A month ago, we reviewed the skinny mini Dell Dimension 4600C desktop in a high-performance, $1,759 configuration. Today you can get the space-saving system complete with 17-inch LCD monitor for just $999 (after a $50 mail-in rebate), though that Pentium 4/2.4 model has just a CD-ROM instead of DVD or CD-RW drive.

Making room for both DVD-ROM and CD-RW, we configured the conventional-minitower-case Dimension 4600 for $993 after rebate with the same 2.4GHz Pentium 4/2.4 chip but an ample 512MB of DDR333 memory, an 80GB hard disk, and a 128MB Nvidia GeForceFX 5200 graphics card; the price includes your pick of a 15-inch LCD or 19-inch CRT.

While the Dimensions that fit our budget have older 533MHz-bus CPUs, Gateway's model 500S offers the 800MHz-bus, Hyper-Threading Pentium 4/2.4 processor — along with 256MB of DDR333, DVD-ROM and CD-RW drives, an 80GB hard disk, and a 17-inch CRT monitor — for $1,000 ... which, actually, is $1 more than the same Gateway system cost in our previous quarterly roundup. Graphics are supplied by Intel's 865G chipset, with an AGP slot for extra-cost upgrades.

Gateway's entry in the $1,000 notebook race, the 400SP, currently sports 2.2GHz of Pentium 4-M power, as well as a 14.1-inch display, 30GB hard disk, and DVD-ROM drive. At 6.2 pounds, it's lighter than most bargain laptops, such as Dell's 8.0-pound Vaio GRT — which has a slower Celeron/1.8 CPU, but a combo DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive.

The Big Picture
You say a 14.1-inch screen isn't enough? Dell's 7.8-pound Inspiron 5100 is $999 with a free upgrade to a 15.0-inch XGA display plus a free upgrade from 256MB to 384MB of DDR266 memory. It's got a 30GB hard disk and DVD-ROM (a combo drive adds $69), with ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 graphics; Intel's 2.4GHz Pentium 4 gives desktop-caliber performance.

Another 15.0-inch-screen machine, Toshiba's $999 Satellite A15, has more modest Celeron/2.0 horsepower, but is a trim 6.1 pounds with a 30GB hard disk and DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive.

For its part, HP gives shoppers a choice of two notebooks priced at $1,000 after instant and mail-in rebates. The Compaq Presario 2561US puts IBM's "Who Could Resist?" ThinkPad to shame with its 2.4GHz Pentium 4 CPU, 256MB of DDR266 memory, DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, and 14.1-inch XGA display.

But the better buy is the HP Pavilion ZE4420US, which uses AMD's Athlon XP-M 2200+ processor — it has a bigger 15.0-inch screen, larger 40GB hard disk, and weighs a few ounces less (7.3 pounds). Wal-Mart offers the similar Pavilion ZE4427WM (hmm, wonder what the last two initials stand for) with a smaller 30GB hard disk, but HP's compact PSC 1210 printer/scanner/copier thrown in, for $998. That's the best dorm-room deal we've seen in some time.

Finally, this survey usually sticks to Windows XP systems, but the Linux vendor LindowsOS is making a bid for bargain hunters' attention: Loaded with its LindowsOS 4.0 distribution including the OpenOffice suite and other applications, its new KooBox Deluxe desktop is $998 with an Athlon XP 2000+ processor, 512MB of RAM, a 60GB hard disk, DVD-ROM and CD-RW drives, and GeForce4 MX 400 graphics. Oops, sorry — it's two for $998 with those specs. The stripped-down KooBox with 1.2GHz Duron CPU, 256MB of memory, 20GB hard disk, and CD-ROM is $449 including a 14.1-inch LCD monitor.

Adapted from HardwareCentral.com.

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